THE DESIRE PATH - THE BACKSTORY
AN ONGOING CREATIVE PHOTOGRAPHIC PERSONAL PROJECT, THE DESIRE PATH IS ABOUT MINDFUL PHOTOGRAPHY, FORGING A DEEPER CONNECTION WITH NATURE AND AN EXPLORATION OF WOODLAND FOLKLORE (AMONG MANY OTHER THINGS)
I've been working on a personal project called The Desire Path for two years now. In fact, it's two years, one month and two days (and approx four hours). The only reason I can give you that level of detail is because I have been documenting every stage of the project, with my camera obviously, but also with a journal and with voice notes. And the whole journey started on Thursday 8th April 2021 (at around 14.45).
One of the final photographs that I have created for this project was selected for the Comme Ca Art X AWOL Studios Open Call Exhibition, which opens next week, so over the next seven days I want to try and weave my way through the backstory of The Desire Path and take you on the journey with me.
It all started with the word 'Footpath'. I was in a newly formed collective of photographers as part of the Lightbox programme with Red Eye, and we settled on footpaths as a suitably broad subject matter as our first collective project. Remember these were still COVID times so we were living with restrictions on our recreational behaviour. Walks had become much more significant.
I started looking for inspiration by going for meandering walks with my dog, often letting him decide which way we turned when we reached a junction.
These first few photographs are from that very first walk.
April to May 2021
The meandering walks were (at the time) troublesome. Like many others, the pandemic left me feeling unanchored, so when I went out with my camera trying to find inspiration to make work for our group project, I was inadvertently pushing myself in the wrong direction.
So I started to let myself drift as I walked. I stopped trying and just let myself daydream. These were strange times as it was: the world was quieter than usual, certainly there were less people around and the weather was unusually idyllic. In my notes I mentioned how it felt similar to how I remembered summers growing up. A sense of nostalgia, but in the present.
In my daydreams I conjured an alternative reality where just me and Rocket could exist. So in the photographs I started taking I was trying to capture where the edges of the two realities would meet. I wanted them to feel fantastical and dreamlike and looking back the work now I can see how the weather and the light played a part in this.
The last image in this post shows the discovery of this "secret" pathway, that I now refer to as The Desire Path.
May to July 2021
The first photograph here is of Rocket running toward the "secret" pathway he discovered, leading off one of the paths that we regularly walk. After bringing these shots and stories back to the other members of my collective, I was introduced to the writings of Robert Macfarlane. This is where I learned of the term 'desire paths'.
"Paths & tracks made over time by the wishes & feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning. Free-will ways."
Still in my daydream mode but now with Macfarlane's words in my mind, I started to feel like the work had more focus. All of the shoots from hereon took place along this desire path. It was perfect. The fact that it ran perpendicular to a common path echoed the fantasy I was indulging, of this alternate reality we'd stumbled into.
By focusing on this fascinating desire path, the project progressed and I started to feel a real connection with the land. I started learning about the trees, and through regular repeated visits I noticed the changes as we moved between the seasons. One day in June we arrived to find the whole path covered in a beautiful white carpet of fluffy seeds (Aspen or Poplar trees I believe). And the path needed to be walked regularly or I risked losing it to the lush growth of summer.
Most of the other trees along The Desire Path seem to be Hawthorn, and thanks to a friend sharing some beautiful wisdom, I learned of the association between Hawthorn and ancient woodland folklore. More magical escapism to lean into...
July to October 2022
Now that we’d found The Desire Path, I knew this would be the focus of the work. But I saw a change in the photos I was taking. At first my intention was to document the path and show how it changed throughout the year, hoping to deepen my connection and learn more about the land. But I quickly started to feel that this wasn’t enough. I had to keep going.
The photos in this batch show how I started to become more familiar with this ‘secret’ patch of woodland. I had names for specific parts of the path and so would photograph them over and over again on repeated visits. But I was still looking for where to take the project. It had to reflect the process I’d been through that got me to this point, but also needed grounding in some way. This was another block I had to work through and so started to feel distanced from it for a time, and so the visits became less frequent.
Then I stopped taking my camera with me, to take away the pressure I was feeling. The Desire Path had become a deeply personal place for me to visit with Rocket and that felt more important than trying to force it into a coherent body of work. So my intention changed and with that the work moved into a more contemplative stage.
October to December 2022
I started to lean into a contemplative approach and learned more about meditative photography. Being connected to the land, and simply being present in the space became the intention. The path became a sanctuary and I would go there with Rocket to just take notice of the surroundings. That was enough.
Then I started taking the camera out again and just freestyled – being led by my thoughts on that day and by what I noticed around me. Issues started to come into my head like ‘overtourism’ (I’d read an article about an ancient woodland being destroyed by Instagrammers). This connected with my feelings about the wider climate crisis and our global apathy, which I’ve always wanted to address in my work.
The images in this batch feature some of my testing images. I was finalising the locations I would use whilst playing around with exposures + experimenting with light and long exposures (props to Rocket for his assistance in this part).
December 2022 to January 2023
Back at the start of the project I’d turned to nature because I was feeling lost, at least creatively. This inspired me to consciously connect more with the natural world, which led me to incorporate mindfulness into my practice, which allowed me to daydream and create imagined realities. I started reading and learning more about our seasons and became more aware of lunar cycles and astronomical events that influence all life on earth. Bottom line – being connected with nature is so important and I can lean on this the next time I feel stuck.
I started to try and work in sync with nature’s clock and the natural rhythms, so we’d go to The Desire Path on significant days and times, eg. the first day of snow that year, the Spring Equinox (at the exact time where day and night are in equal balance), or at sunrise or under the dark skies of a new moon etc.
Through testing and experimenting playfully with light, I started to see how the final photographs could work. How I utilise light as part of the subject in the frame, allows me to represent numerous key elements of the work; whether it’s showing the less-than-obvious path through the trees or the ethereal presence of something magical that hides in these woods. But most importantly, the light in the photographs is ephemeral. It leaves no trace. It has respect for the planet.
The images in this batch are two more of my test shots. The first is a multiple exposure with Rocket running back and forth wearing both a red and white light and the second is again a multiple exposure, stacked image, all created in-camera.
The Desire Path #1 - The Storm Moon
This is what it’s all been building toward. The first of the final series of photographs that I have, and am still making, to bring this chapter of The Desire Path project to some sort of completion. I choose my words carefully because I don’t want this work to end as such. But it has been cathartic to review the work I’ve made over the last couple of years and read through my notes and rewrite them here as a coherent backstory, and hopefully provide some insight and context for the final pieces.
‘The Storm Moon’ is just one of the names given to February’s full moon (others include Ice Moon, Snow Moon, Hunger Moon or Candles Moon). The photographs were taken as close to the time of true opposition as possible (which in this case was 18:29) and show the ‘the impasse’ – a section of the path obstructed by a fallen tree.
The final image was to be constructed using a composite of multiple frames. I used a portable orb light (which is actually a mini model of the moon in itself) and took several shots moving the light each time. Originally my intention was to show the route through the impasse using a trail of lights.
But as I worked on the image back at home it wasn’t quite working for me. Being in the woods in the dark with just Rocket for company, it had felt eerie and quiet. I was conscious of the moon reaching its fullest and brightest above us, but it was hidden behind cloud so the sky had a gentle glow. Showing a trail of lights felt too literal. I thought about the folklore and stories I’d read earlier on this journey, about magical creatures hiding in the trees. I wanted the final image to feel mysterious and dark and I wanted that element of obscurity that I had experienced with the moon hidden behind the clouds.
The Desire Path #2 - The First Snow
The second in the final series, taken on the day of the first snowfall in Manchester in January 2023.